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Twenty-five years ago today, Canadians woke up to learn that one of the most popular and successful politicians in the country's history had done the unthinkable.

John Robarts, the premier of Ontario during the Go-Go Sixties, known across the country as "the Chairman of the Board," had committed suicide.

His death brought to an end a life story worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy.

Destiny had its fingerprints all over Mr. Robarts, who was born on the same date as Sir John A. Macdonald and Jean Chrétien. (In fact, when Mr. Robarts headed the Ontario government from 1961 to 1971, his title was prime minister of Ontario. His successor, William Davis, changed the title to premier.)

Mr. Robarts's life was a study in contrasts. His public political life brimmed with success. He won the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership on a marathon sixth ballot in 1961, then kept the PC dynasty alive by winning 48.9 per cent of the total vote in the 1963 election - still a provincial postwar record.

His government kicked sleepy Ontario into third gear. So much of what the province now takes for granted happened because the Robarts government made it so: from the province's first foray into nuclear power to the creation of the GO Transit commuter rail system; from the Ontario Science Centre (he thought science should be fun for students) to Ontario Place (so underprivileged Toronto children would have a place to play in the summer).

Under Mr. Robarts, the province built five new universities, an entire community college system (with education minister Bill Davis at the helm) and the Niagara Escarpment Commission, designed to protect what the United Nations has recognized as an internationally important biosphere.

For a man raised and educated in the very white and Anglo-Saxon city of London, Ont., he had a remarkably progressive attitude on French-English issues. In Canada's centennial year, he invited all the premiers to attend the Confederation of Tomorrow conference on the top floor of the newly built Toronto-Dominion Centre, simply to explore the question of what Quebec wanted. While serving in the navy during the Second World War, one of his shipmates had been a Quebecker, and Mr. Robarts evidently took to heart the notion that all Canadians, French and English, were in the same boat.

He won re-election in 1967, then left public life in 1971, joined a blue-chip Toronto law firm and numerous boards, and enjoyed a lucrative postpolitical life.

But as successful as his public life was, his private life was the opposite.

After marrying his university sweetheart, Norah McCormick, he was promptly shipped off to war. After he returned, the lengthy absences continued as his political career took flight.

Norah's biggest mistake was declining her husband's request to move with their two children to Toronto, where the premier was now spending the bulk of his time. A gregarious man who loved people, Mr. Robarts often found himself frequenting Yorkville's jazz scene till the wee hours of the morning, and often in the company of women not necessarily his wife.

After retiring from politics, he asked Norah one last time to move to Toronto. She refused. The couple split up. It was a shocking development for London in the early 1970s.

Mr. Robarts would remarry a divorced single mother, Katherine Sickafuse, an American 28 years his junior. Most of his friends thought he was nuts, but the new couple got on remarkably well. Whereas Norah despised the hunting expeditions, the fishing trips and the life of a political spouse, Katherine embraced it all. But two things destroyed Mr. Robarts's happiness.

His son Tim, who had a troubled adolescence and never suffered his father's long absences well, committed suicide. Then, in 1981, Mr. Robarts suffered a massive stroke and never really recovered. He was no longer the Chairman of the Board but an invalid who was unable to hunt, fish and make love to his gorgeous young wife. He became depressed and warned close friends that he had no interest in living in such miserable conditions.

And so, in the early morning hours of Oct. 18, 1982, he walked into the shower stall in the second-floor bathroom of his Rosedale home and shot himself. He used the shotgun that the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party had presented to him as a gift, thanking him for 20 years of service to province and country.

Ontarians can thank the public John Robarts for making good decisions during his premiership. But very few knew of his private demons, which brought a tragic end to a brilliant life - 25 years ago today.

Steve Paikin is anchor

and senior editor of The Agenda

with Steve Paikin on TVOntario.

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